Given that it’s spooky season and Halloween is right around the corner, I did research on Halloween. I discovered that the holiday as we know it may not have always been in place. In fact, I found that Halloween evolved from what was originally Samhain (sah-win) – an ancient pagan holiday/festival and that morphed through Christian subversion.
What is Samhain?
Samhain is originally a Celtic pagan harvest festival. Celts celebrated it to honor the dead. It is one of 4 major pagan festivals that they celebrate. Celts celebrated each festival at the end of the season and the beginning of the next season.
Samhain in particular marks the end of summer and the beginning of the harsh winter. In the Gaelic language, Samhain is Samhuinn, which literally translates to Summer’s End as “sam” means summer and “huinn” means end.
Part of the festival included lighting a bonfire. This bonfire was representative of releasing negativity and burning away personal unwanted baggage
The Dark Holiday
It is celebrated on November 1 but Celts measured their days from sunset to sunset so they technically began their festivities after sunset on October 31 until sunset on November 1.
During the winter season, the days are shorter and the nights are longer. The festival is associated with darkness for this very reason – it marks the beginning of the darker time of the year.
Ghosts and Goblins
On this day, it is believed that the veil between the physical world and the Astral is at its thinnest. This just means that it was easier to do anything related to the Astral such as spirit communication and divination.
According to lore, this allows entities of all spiritual types to roam the Earth freely. Some have good intention and others are not so good intentions. Among the good ones were those family members and ancestors that have returned to their hometown to be with their family once again.
To honor them, the Celts designated rows of seats at the festivities and in homes especially for those deceased members that have returned. Also to honor their ancestors, the Celts prepared for the return of their deceased family members by cleaning grave sites and monuments.
The priests practiced divination on this day to predict the outcome of the following year for the community as well as individuals.
They would do so through communication with spirits or through other forms of divination, such as reading tea leaves, apple bobbing, or placing hazelnuts in a fire.
The hazelnut was used in matrimonial divination to help single women and men determine who their marriage partner might end up being.
The Celts used apples in matrimonial divination through apple bobbing and peeling the skin. With apple bobbing, single women would bob for apples and if a woman was successful in retrieving an apple then it was predicted that she would likely marry that year.
As for peeling the apple, the woman would peel the skin from the apple carefully to maintain that it was one piece. Once completed, she would throw the apple skin behind and over her shoulder.
The letter that the skin formed on the floor would be the first letter of her future husband’s name.
From these indications of several methods of matrimonial divination, we can conclude that the practice of divining possible partners was very popular during this time.
Roman Empire Influence
The Celts practiced their culture freely until their land came under control of the Roman Empire in the first century AD.
The Roman Empire held pagan views and celebrations but had different names for them. While Rome ruled Celtic lands, their celebrations became merged. One Roman festivity that merged with Celtic was Feralia.
This shared much similarity with the Celts Samhain. It involved honoring the dead and occurred on the last day of the Roman year.
Another festival was The Festival of Pomona, a harvest festival. Pomona was the Roman Goddess of apples, trees, and gardens. Accordingly, apples were a common food during the festival.
This is likely how apples found their way into today’s Halloween in candied apples and apple bobbing.
Christian Subversion of Samhain
Later on during the time of the Roman Empire’s rules over Celtic land, Christian saints made it their mission to convert the pagan people to Christianity. Their method to convert pagans was to allow them to celebrate their festivals but adapt it in a way that was Christian.
This is what happened with Samhain. Pope Gregory III was Pope of the Roman Empire from 731 – 741 AD. He declared November 1st to be recognized as “All Saint’s Day”.
This holiday remembered all deceased Saints and martyrs that did not have their own day of recognition. A day meant for honoring the dead… Coincidence? I think not.
During my research, I found that there was debate regarding All Saint’s Day. There were two viewpoints:
- Pope Gregory III moved All Saint’s Day to directly to subvert the pagans and their customs.
- All Saint’s Day was its own celebration unrelated to Samhain.
The Christian believers say that All Saint’s Day was established first but then the pagans corrupted the day into Halloween – a day of “witchcraft and the dead”.
They say that their is no evidence to support the claim that Samhain pre-dates Christian holidays. However, the Celts had a tomb that proves otherwise, Mound of the Hostages, in Tara, Ireland.
The tomb was used from the Middle Neolithic period (3350–2800 BC) to the Early Bronze Age (2300–1700 BC) and housed several hundred individuals.
Here you can see that the Samhain sunrise illuminates the back of the tomb. This is no coincidence.
It makes sense that the Christian saints would subvert the pagan cultures to win over converts. Why? Because in their mind it was God’s Will that men worshiped him as the one true God.
Adapting pagan customs to usher pagans into Christianity would make it easier to convert them or have them practice Christianity.
Verses that Enabled Christian Subversion
God instructs his followers to destroy any knowledge of Pagan Gods:
“13 Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and cut down their Asherah poles.”
“5 This is what you are to do to them: Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire.”
“2 Destroy completely all the places on the high mountains, on the hills and under every spreading tree, where the nations you are dispossessing worship their gods. 3 Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and burn their Asherah poles in the fire; cut down the idols of their gods and wipe out their names from those places.”
Note. Asherah poles: wooden poles placed to honor the Goddess of fertility Asherah; also known as Astarte.
Christian saints during the time can view this behaviour as acceptable according to the scriptures. If Christian saints had not altered Samhain, Halloween would be much different today. We would probably still be lighting bonfires and enjoying festivities and elaborate feasts much like the Celts on Samhain.